SOCIETIES today spend huge amounts on passenger travel and freight transport. At present, nearly 25 per cent of the world`s total energy in the form of oil is consumed by transportation. Over the last century, travelling and transportation have been mainly fuelled by oil.

There are now growing concerns about the long-term sustainability of oil since reserves are rapidly diminishing. Pakistan imports 80 per cent of its oil. That is reason enough for it to tackle urgently the growing challenges. The way ahead is the exploitation of indigenous energy resources. Biofuel is an ideal candidate for partially replacing petrol and diesel. This is the fuel derived from biomass (either in the form of living organisms or the waste they produce).

Notwithstanding the global debate on the feasibility of biofuel and its impact on food production, this form of energy offers many advantages to Pakistan. The main one is that it is a domestic resource and thus reduces reliance on imported oil.

It is also renewable, environmentally-friendly, biodegradable and non-toxic. Biofuel can help Pakistan substantially cut its petrol import bill, diversify its energy mix and increase energy security. It also exhibits great micro-economic advantages. For example, not only can farmers become self-sufficient in meeting energy requirements, they can also earn handsome revenues by selling it in the open market.

As an alternative source of energy, biofuel has been characterised by superb growth in many parts of the world. In 2006, the global biofuel production rose by 28 per cent reaching 44 billion litres. Bioethanol grew by 22 per cent and biodiesel rose by 80 per cent. On Feb 24, 2008, this source of fuel hit another landmark when a commercial flight flew between London and Amsterdam using biofuel. One of the Boeing 747 aircraft`s four engines ran on fuel comprising a 20 per cent biofuel mix of coconut and babassu oil and 80 per cent of the normal aviation fuel.

This fuel can be broadly classified into two types bioethanol and biodiesel. The first is used in gasoline (spark ignition i.e. oil and gas) engines and is generated via the fermentation process — mainly through sugar. It can also be developed by the chemical process involving ethylene and steam. Ethanol fuel blends usually comprise 10 per cent ethanol and 90 per cent petrol. Modern car engines require no modifications to run on this composition. However, flex-fuel vehicles can run on up to 85 per cent ethanol and 15 per cent petrol blends.

Biodiesel is used in diesel (compression ignition) engines and is produced through a variety of chemical processes mainly the transesterification process in which glycerin is separated from biomass oil to deliver biodiesel. Biodiesel can easily be made from any fat (animal fat), tree/crop oil or vegetable oil (soy, canola, sunflower, castor, palm) or even common waste products such as used cooking oil.

Recently, the Pakistan government took the initiative to promote biofuels. The emphasis, however, has been on bioethanol coming from molasses, a byproduct of sugar with the Pakistan Sugar Mills Association (PSMA) being closely involved in the advancement process. But in 2007, only six out of more than 70 sugar mills in the country had facilities to transform raw molasses into fuel quality ethanol. With the current production level of the sugarcane crop, Pakistan has the potential to produce over 400,000 tonnes of ethanol. Nonetheless, less than one-third of this amount is being currently produced. Most of the raw material — molasses in our case — is exported either as it is or in the form of industrial alcohol (an intermediate stage between molasses and ethanol) at a very low price.

Fully exploiting the aforementioned potential to displace an equivalent amount of imported petrol (in terms of energy content) can offer very healthy economic relief to all stakeholders including the government, the PSMA, farmers and the common man.

Fears that increased pursuance of biofuel may lead to the displacement of food crops do not hold water. Statistics suggest that so far less than 0.1 per cent of the total potential of molasses-based bioethanol is being used as alternative fuel. Thus a 1,000-fold increase is manageable without any adverse impact on food crops. Furthermore, efforts could be made to increase the sugarcane yield and also to introduce other energy crops such as sugar beet.

Waterlogged land, estimated to be around seven million acres, with appropriate techniques such as gypsum treatment, can also be used for growing low-quality energy crops. There is also tremendous potential to produce bioethanol from biomass waste and municipal waste. On top of bioethanol, there is also an overwhelming potential for biodiesel production. A prospective biodiesel source is the castor bean. It is a self-gown plant seen in many parts of Pakistan particularly in arid and semi-arid areas.

It is noteworthy that in terms of energy crops (i.e. seed production per hectare and oil content), the castor seed is a far better choice than other crops presently in use in Europe and the US such as corn, rapeseed, sunflower and soyabean. Castor oil (a derivative of the castor bean) is regarded as one of the best substances for the production of biodiesel because it is soluble in alcohol and does not require heat and the consequent energy as other vegetable oils do for transformation into biodiesel. Detailed figures and mappings for castor bean production in Pakistan are not available since it is very much an untapped resource.

Despite the government`s initiatives, bioethanol-led biofuel promotion programmes have made no impact. A typical example is that of the pilot project launched in 2006 as part of which three petrol stations (one each in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad) introduced ethanol-petrol blend in a ratio of 19. Ironically, the track record suggests that most such initiatives evaporate in their initial stages and do not make a meaningful impact.

To make bioethanol initiatives tangible, rational policies would have to be formulated and implemented. There is a wide perception that the bioethanol programme should not be under the mandate of the ministry of petroleum and natural resources as is the case now. Bearing in mind that all over the world there are conflicts of interest between rival technologies such as fossil fuels, renewables and nuclear power, the bioethanol programme should have an autonomous mandate, independent of the influence of oil and gas stakeholders.

The present practice — export of the bulk of raw material (molasses and industrial alcohol) — is a far less lucrative approach and should be discouraged. In order to make a real breakthrough, biofuel policies should be redesigned in consultation with all stakeholders such as the PSMA, the oil and gas companies, industrialists, investors, farmers, agriculture bodies and civil society. Even automobile companies should be persuaded to introduce flex-fuel vehicles. Financial incentives, where appropriate, should be offered.n

The writer is a lecturer in renewable energy at the Glasgow Caledonian University, UK.

dr.m.asif@gmail.com

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